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For better healthcare, they share the wealth

July 10, 2006|Elena Conis

Lauded recently for donating billions of dollars to improve public health, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are but the latest in a long line of American philanthropists determined to improve the health of others. In the early 18th century, donors focused largely on alleviating poverty or providing general healthcare to the poor. In the late 1800s, the focus shifted to combating individual diseases.

-- Elena Conis

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In crowded Manhattan at the turn of the 20th century, Macy's department store owner Nathan Straus became troubled by the large numbers of newborns dying from infections caused by contaminated milk and water, opening the first so-called milk station in New York City in 1893. The stations provided new mothers with clean milk, ice to keep it cold in summer and advice on how to care for their infants.

Straus' efforts were mimicked by those of the Milbank Memorial Fund, founded in 1905 in New York by heiress Elizabeth Milbank Andersen. But the Milbank fund then went even further, funding construction of public baths to improve personal hygiene and a hospital for tuberculosis patients.

Philanthropists didn't always reach their goals. In 1909, John D. Rockefeller devoted $1 million of his Standard Oil fortune to the formation of the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission -- a philanthropy whose primary concern was ridding the South of hookworm disease. The commission found and treated infected people in 12 states, teaching them how to avoid the worm, which burrows into the body through the feet. By 1914, the commission had cured some 700,000 infections -- reducing incidence but failing to wipe the disease off the map.

Undaunted, Rockefeller's new foundation went on to fund research into malaria, yellow fever and malnutrition, which included supporting individual, trailblazing scientists, a tradition that other donors followed.

Such research has resulted in several of modern medicine's staples.

In the 1940s, with support from the Commonwealth Fund, physician and researcher George Papanicolaou devised the "Pap smear" test for cervical cancer -- responsible for dramatically reducing the number of related cancer deaths.

And in the 1950s, biologist Gregory Pincus received millions from heiress Katharine McCormick (who was also one of the first women to earn a degree at MIT) to develop the birth control pill.

Whether Gates' and Buffett's money will add a long-sought HIV vaccine to the list remains to be seen. But note that Gates' foundation is the largest of its kind -- and with Buffett's recent gift, it may remain in that position for generations to come.

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